A COOPERATIVE APPROACH FOR UNITING OUR SOCIETY

Address by Professor Bruno-Marie Béchard,
Rector of the Université de Sherbrooke,
on the occasion of the 2006 Cooperative Forum

March 14, 2006

Mr. Chairman of the Board of Directors,
Dear members of cooperative movements,

Both of the recently published manifestos, “Pour un Québec lucide” (for a lucid Quebec) and “Pour un Québec solidaire” (for a Quebec in solidarity), launched a debate about the problems confronting our society on such issues as the public debt, social inequities and demographic decline. They also brought to light the risks caused by the deterioration of our public services, and questioned the commitments of our governments facing ecological challenges, managing our important hydroelectric energy resources and financing higher education.

These manifestos encourage us to revisit our traditional approach to the realities of Quebec. In this challenging context, I wish to highlight my belief that we can find inspiration and direction in the cooperative movement, a major characteristic of the reality of Quebec. In my view, the potential offered by our network of over 3000 cooperatives and mutual societies is a fundamental player in the march to a Quebec that is both in SOLidarity and lucID, that is to say SOLID!

If we were to all join forces and apply our cooperative values and principles to the task at hand, these fundamental assets could become the future spearhead for Quebec: a project of social consensus capable of invigorating both union and entrepreneurial forces as well as stimulating new cooperative advances. The future does not lie solely in the lucid right or the solidarity left. I profoundly believe that it lies in cooperative leadership and the values the movement encompasses.

Therefore, if we act with lucidity in facing our challenges, we can mobilise the power of our solidarity to rise to new heights by deploying the cooperative spirit on a grander scale, by articulating the views of the private collective with the private individual and the public sector.

With this perspective in mind, I would like to share with you my views based on a reflection that has taken place for some time at the Université de Sherbrooke, and then talk to you about the cooperative ideal, the strength of our movement, the fundamental issues for all of us and a few development paths, to finally come to a cooperative approach that would unify our society.

Université de Sherbrooke

This talk fits in well with the line of thought of the first Chair in Cooperation created in 1967 at the Université de Sherbrooke, thanks to the Conseil de la coopération du Québec. The person behind the creation of this Chair was Professor Émile Bouvier, who distinguished, from the “scientific point of view,” the cooperative system from the purely capitalist system: “private enterprise motivated by profit [versus the] cooperative approach, motivated by community service.”

A visionary, Professor Bouvier anticipated the role of the cooperative effort in regional economic planning and he considered it "most important to constantly re-evaluate the movement's philosophy."

Within a short time, the Université de Sherbrooke spread this expertise to the cooperative societies in the developing countries, thanks to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Starting in 1976, Sherbrooke made this form of cooperation one of its “important orientations,” involving the entire institution. The creation of the Institut de recherche et d'enseignement pour les coopératives (IRECUS)–the Institute of Research and Education for Cooperatives–was devoted to the multi-disciplinary character of this sector and intensified the contribution of the Université de Sherbrooke to the progress of the movement, as much in Quebec as internationally.

In a speech given in 1979 during the first awarding of UdeS diplomas in Africa, then Rector Yves Martin declared, and I quote: “In Quebec, the cooperative movement occupies a very important place in the economic, cultural and social landscape. The values that this movement inspires are much more important than the techniques it has developed in the particular context of Quebec.”

Even at that time, Rector Martin considered the contribution of the cooperative movement vital to the economic development of each of Quebec's regions as well as the entire province. Quebec, he said, has no more powerful levers than the cooperative movement “to achieve the objectives of its development by itself, of its endogenous development, that will in the future be the essential key to our progress.”

Ideal

In my view, cooperation represents the fraternal union of people who are imbued with the same ideal, who collaborate to satisfy their common needs. When we support one another, we master our destiny rather than being subjected to it.

Cooperation brings a large breath of fresh, ethical air to inspire our collective future: in the business world, the economy and society and general, our cooperatives put the emphasis on greater responsibility, greater solidarity and more equity, core beliefs for a society with more cohesive and solid values.

Among the assets of the cooperative movement, the notion of the person, the team, participation, responsibility taking, equitable sharing and democratic management are absolutely fundamental. In every coop, the members apply values that are universally recognised with the goal of doing business that is centred on the needs of the person.

Six of the seven cooperative principles show the way for improvement of the human condition: freedom to belong, education, democratic power, autonomy, inter-cooperation and community engagement. Only one principle deals with the issue of money–as a means and not as an end in itself.

Over and above material advantages, workers, consumers and producers adhere to this economic and social development ideal for the satisfaction of exceeding one's goals and being open to others. Here, a collaborative approach helps invent solutions that are unlikely to become dated. For the last 150 years, our cooperatives have functioned on this community base, a role of first importance. But we have yet to be fully aware of their enormous potential in the shaping of a new social wave that is typically Quebec in character. Quebec can build on the strength of its unified cooperative forces to forge its evolving social structure.

Strengths

Quebec is considerably enhanced by the economic impact of the cooperative and mutual society movements and by the great diversity of the sectors where they are active. Public perception of cooperatives is very positive as well: 75% of the Quebec general public see the coops as a good solution to our economic challenges; 79% believe they offer better prices for equal-quality goods and services; 83% believe that they encourage a hands-on, take-charge approach to the local economy.

And this appreciation is borne out by the fact that 75% of Quebec's population has membership in a cooperative or mutual society, and I'm proud to be one of them! Between 1999 and 2003, the assets of these cooperatives and mutual societies grew by 30% and their business volume, by 40% with an increase of 5500 jobs.

We innovated by creating the first workers' share-holder and regional development cooperatives. Our Caisses Desjardins figure prominently among the best financial services cooperatives in the World. In the area of agricultural cooperatives, the Coop Fédérée covers 50% of farm supplies and 50% of the pork and poultry markets. Our funeral home cooperatives counterbalance the weight of the multinationals; even with only 15% of market share, they succeeded in getting the prices lowered by 50%, a spectacular victory for the cooperative movement, which benefits our entire society.

By integrating the social and economic aspects of sustainable development, the cooperative formula ensures the continuity and longevity of companies that start up in a community. The companies that are developing in the regions reinforce our local decision-making power, a strong contrast to the tendencies created by globalisation.

In terms of this longevity, the cooperatives have a higher success rate than other categories of companies. In fact, the survival rate among cooperatives almost doubles that of firms in the private sector, according to the Ministry of Economic Development, Innovation and Export Trade.

Stakes

Given the magnitude of our social challenges (notably the public debt, the declining birth rate, the ageing of the population and the dilemma of school drop-out rates) and the enormous economic pressures caused by globalisation, we must be in agreement about the major orientations around which to build a new society. Now that it has developed the tools for efficient management, I hope that the cooperative movement leads the transformation of our society.

There is a distinction to be made between the cooperative itself, which is a form of company, and cooperation, which is a social ideal: the cooperative demands cooperation, but activities of cooperation can very well be achieved outside the framework of cooperative organisations. Cooperation in this sense is above all a form of humanism: taking human beings and their fulfillment as an end, cooperation lays down the foundation for a more equitable society.

We must therefore work on two fronts: extend the cooperatives to new areas and expand the spirit of cooperation throughout our society by especially developing new links between the generations and with the cultural communities. While cooperative management opens up to new forms of partnership with the public, private and social sectors, its philosophy could help orient the future of our unique society.

We can take on our major challenges and projects with this democratically active approach, where the people who act at every stage of the process are the same ones who decide along the way.

Development

In this perspective, the cooperatives in the Eastern Townships region have started a mobilisation process that translates into two main spheres: the social rallying of the Sherbrooke area Caisses Desjardins and the job creation initiatives of the Coopérative de développement de l'Estrie.

At the Université de Sherbrooke, the IRECUS, the Institute of Research and Education for Cooperatives, which decided to deepen its thoughts on cooperatism, is on the verge of launching a new development fund. The University also actively supports the setting up of the first summer school for youthful creators of cooperatives, as well as, in Sherbrooke's downtown core, the first off-campus student housing cooperative in Quebec. The UdeS has also introduced a tradition in Quebec, joining forces with local communities inspired by the cooperative process and its values of service to society, of shared responsibility and of mutual exchanges. The cooperative regime of study involves work partners to better respond to their needs while providing a service to students by better preparing them for employment as well as helping them financing their studies.

The models that have been fine-tuned in Sherbrooke place high value on cooperation as a management method at the confluence of the public and private sectors. This expertise is transferable on a World-wide basis, notably thanks to the Réseau uniRcoop network that we are piloting and which is the most important grouping of professors and researchers specialised in the cooperative and association phenomena in the Americas, with a membership of 22 universities from 15 different countries.

Traditionally, cooperatives and mutual societies have enjoyed success in Quebec, notably in savings and credit, agriculture, funeral services, food distribution, housing and insurance. The human needs at the source of cooperation are therefore numerous and varied. They cover many of life's dimensions and go beyond the economic sphere alone. But in the context of questioning the general interest, which is convenient for the state model, we now have occasions to transfer activities toward the collective interest, based on the cooperative model, rather than the individual interest exemplified by the capitalist model. This is the case with activities associated with common fundamental needs such as water, energy and health. In the future, would putting in place consumer cooperatives in the water sector allow us to prevent municipal infrastructure deterioration? In the area of energy, wind power for example, could producer cooperatives have access to public funding and private expertise to support start-ups and the development of their activities? Do health cooperatives not constitute an excellent means for the population to take charge of health care in a complementary system?

It would be desirable to strengthen the links with non-profit organisations and autonomous community action groups. These closer ties would reinforce citizen activity and reduce social inequities; it would encourage thousands of members to mobilise around a cause: taking charge locally of managing the common good. This thrust should promote the participation of native people, anglophones and immigrants, as well as create a balance between the sexes and the different age groups.

Most of the leaders of the major cooperatives know one another and share the same vision and way of doing things. By occupying a prominent place and by taking a position in the public debates, their commitment can have a significant multiplying effect on the members of the coops, who could also, in turn, react according to their respective interests and contributions.

In each region, the leaders of different sectors could organise themselves into a network to create the core of a “cooperative transformation” of our Quebec society. Is it not around a core that a piece of fruit matures? This would bring the “cooperators” to forge a common cause on the major choices that make sense for Quebec.

Each cooperative or mutual society has an enormous potential to communicate with its members. Using these channels of communication would mobilise a greater number of members to take charge of the community. In this way, we would be relying on the local and regional capital derived from working cooperatively in a more global perspective.

A project for our society

Cooperation, I repeat, is first and foremost humanistic: taking as an end the human being and his or her complete growth, it opens the way to a new World where the success of one depends on the success of others. I am convinced that the values of cooperation will become a beacon for Quebec society that will distinguish us again in the World community. These are the values of mutual help and reciprocity, of equitable democracy and solidarity, of taking charge and assuming personal and mutual responsibility. I invite us all to defend these values and promote them even more actively.

There are four levels of cooperatism: the cooperator, the cooperative, the cooperative movement and the mobilisation of cooperative forces in a social mobilisation project. We are already leaders in the first three levels, although we must continually consolidate the foundations of cooperation, its definition and its goals. Therein lies the first challenge of the cooperatives, the federations and the regions, and thus, the Conseil de la coopération du Québec.

We have developed efficient management tools while putting aside the rich cooperative philosophy. The cooperative difference should now come before its social or economic success. We must therefore re-impregnate our profound humanistic vision in our organisational and financial management. The two must become one. And this ideal would allow us to cooperatively inspire our collective future in our fields of expertise.

This is where I call upon you to be part of a fourth level of cooperation: as leaders of this movement, we have the responsibility to intervene in the public debates. But before we can proclaim the cooperative difference, we must recognise ourselves as a single movement with a particular philosophy and end. Cooperatives and mutual societies are one and all for everyone, a way in which to plan a society that is richer, more equitable and more convivial. With more than one way to operate, cooperation is a means to live and organise that engages and mobilises. The strength of the cooperative resides especially in the life experience and the witness of its capacity-building leaders.

I therefore invite you to become more unified and to take public positions. We have a focused grouping of projects to put on the table, notably in three vital areas where cooperation offers real possibilities for collective appropriation: water, energy and health. Let's do our homework! Make them known! Test them with the general public!

Together we form a network of great strength that has yet to fully show its mettle. This enormous potential makes me think of the energy contained in the atom before it is released by a nuclear reaction. To liberate the human energy that is present in the cooperatives and mutual societies, I invite us to apply our ideal in the service of a structuring project for our society.

Let's mobilise all of our cooperative forces and strengths! Let's become allies of other groups and players! Let's take our place on the political chessboard. In each of our areas, let's think about how to make the necessary resources accessible to all, to the degree possible according to their needs.

Let us also open up to the different components of our Quebec society and recruit extra-cooperative leaders to bring them into developing this structuring project I am especially thinking here of corporate heads who, without having adopted the cooperative model in their own business activities, recognise its relevance, its achievements and its potential.

I am convinced that the values found in cooperation are inscribed in the soul of our people. Let's unite to build a cooperative Quebec!

Conclusion

In the face of globalisation, I am profoundly convinced that cooperation constitutes more than ever the key to the vault of a mobilisation project for our society, one that reflects how we view ourselves. What strategy could better establish our local powers about our common aspirations, than that which puts the accent on the human, social and symbolic capital of cooperation? This cooperative approach therefore contains the very germ of a SOLID Quebec society.

Since leadership and cooperation are the two best ways for us to achieve great things together, by mobilising to develop a project for our society, we will make cooperation both the means and the end of our action. As the 18th century was the Century of Lights, let's together make the 21st century the Century of Cooperation.

I wish you all an excellent Forum filled with great debates.